Soviet women played an important role in World War II (whose Eastern Front was known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union). While most toiled in industry, transport, agriculture and other civilian roles, working double shifts to free up enlisted men to fight and increase military production, a sizable number of women served in the army. The majority were in medical units.
There were 800,000 women who served in the Soviet Armed Forces during the war, which is roughly 3 percent of total military personnel. Nearly 200,000 were decorated and 89 of them eventually received the Soviet Union’s highest award, the Hero of the Soviet Union, among which some served as pilots, snipers, machine gunners, tank crew members and partisans, as well as in auxiliary roles.
At first, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, thousands of women who volunteered were turned away. Two factors changed attitudes and ensured a greater role for women who wanted to fight: the losses to the Germans after their initial success in 1941 and the efforts of determined women. In the early stages of the war, the fastest route to advancement in the military for women was service in medical and auxiliary units.
For Soviet women aviators, instrumental to this change was Marina Raskova, a famous Soviet aviator, often referred to as the "Russian Amelia Earhart". Raskova became famous as both a pilot and a navigator in the 1930s. She was the first woman to become a navigator in the Red Air Force in 1933. A year later she started teaching at the Zhukovskii Air Academy, also a first for a woman. When World War II broke out, there were numerous women who had training as pilots and many immediately volunteered. While there were no formal restrictions on women serving in combat roles, their applications tended to be blocked, run through red tape, etc. for as long as possible in order to discourage them from seeing combat. Raskova is credited with using her personal connections with Joseph Stalin to convince the military to form three combat regiments for women. Not only would the women be pilots, but the support staff and engineers for these regiments were women. Although all three regiments had been planned to have women exclusively, only the 588th would remain an all-women regiment. The Soviet Union was the first nation to allow women pilots to fly combat missions. These regiments with strength of almost hundred airwomen, flew a combined total of more than 30,000 combat sorties, produced at least twenty Heroes of the Soviet Union, and included two fighter aces. This military unit was initially called Aviation Group 122 while the three regiments received training. After their training, the three regiments received their formal designations as follows:
The 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment: This unit was the first to take part in combat (April 16, 1942) of the three female regiments and take part in 4,419 combat missions (125 air battles and 38 kills). Lydia Litvyak and Yekaterina Budanova were assigned to the unit before joining the 437th IAP in the fighting over Stalingrad and became the world's only two female fighter aces (with 12 and 11 victories respectively), both flying the Yak-1 fighter.
The 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment: This was the best known of the regiments and was commanded by Yevdokia Bershanskaya. It originally began service as the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, but was redesignated in February 1943 as recognition for service which would tally almost 24,000 combat missions by the end of the war. Their aircraft was the Polikarpov Po-2, an outdated biplane. The Germans were the ones however who gave them the name that they are most well known as, The Night Witches.
The 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment: Marina Raskova commanded this unit until her death in combat, and then the unit was assigned to Valentin Markov. It started service as the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment until it was given the Guards designation in September 1943.
The Soviet Union deployed women snipers, and to good effect, including Nina Alexeyevna Lobkovskaya and Ukrainian Lyudmila Pavlichenko (who killed over 300 German soldiers). The Soviets found that sniper duties fit women well, since good snipers are patient, deliberate and normally avoid hand-to-hand combat.
Women served particurarly as medics, communication personnel and political officers, as well - in small numbers - as machine gunners, tank drivers, etc. Manshuk Mametova was a machine gunner from Kazakhstan and was the first Soviet Asian woman to receive the Hero of the Soviet Union for acts of bravery. Mariya Oktyabrskaya and Ukrainian Alexandra Samusenko were tank drivers decorated with the same award.
Women crewed the majority of the anti-aircraft batteries employed in Stalingrad. Some batteries, including the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, also engaged in ground combat.
In response to the high casualties suffered by male soldiers, Stalin allowed planning which would replace men with women in second lines of defense, such as anti-aircraft guns and medical aid. These provided gateways through which women could gradually become involved in combat. For example, women comprised 43% of physicians, who were sometimes required to carry rifles as they retrieved men from firing zones. Through small opportunities like this, women gradually gained credibility in the military, eventually numbering 500,000 at any given time toward the end of the war.
Women consistituted significant numbers of the Soviet partisans. One of the most famous was Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. In October 1941, still an 18-year-old high school student in Moscow, she volunteered for a partisan unit. At the village of Obukhovo near Naro-Fominsk, Kosmodemyanskaya and other partisans crossed the front line and entered territory occupied by the Germans. She was arrested by the Nazis on a combat assignment near the village of Petrischevo (Moscow Oblast) in late November 1941. Kosmodemyanskaya was savagely tortured and humiliated, but did not give away the names of her comrades or her real name (claiming that it was Tanya). She was hanged on November 29, 1941. It was claimed that before her death Kosmodemyanskaya had made a speech with the closing words, “There are two hundred million of us; you can’t hang us all!” Kosmodemyanskaya was the first woman to become Hero of the Soviet Union during the war (February 16, 1942).
The youngest woman to become a Hero of the Soviet Union was also a resistance fighter, Zinaida Portnova. She was visiting an aunt when the Germans invaded and was trapped behind German lines. In 1942, aged 15, after seeing the brutality of the occupying troops, Portnova joined the partisan movement in the Byelorussian SSR. She hid weapons for partisans, distributed leaflets and conducted sabotage. In January 1944 she was captured. She shot one of her captors whilst trying to escape but was caught and killed, just short of her 18th birthday. In 1958 Portnova was posthumously made a Hero of the Soviet Union, there is a monument to her in the city of Minsk and some youth pioneer movement detachments were named after her.
Throughout World War II, women appeared in Soviet war propaganda in various capacities. Between 1939 and 1941, wary of German militarism and expansionism, Soviet propaganda encouraged women to undertake paramilitary civil defense training. After the German invasion in 1941, propaganda portrayed women participating in war-related industries, in the medical sector, or in partisan units. Before the severe manpower shortages of 1942, women were prohibited from serving in combat positions, and Soviet propaganda celebrated women’s contributions on the home front. In March 1942, when the People’s Commissariat of Defense began enlisting women to replace male casualties in some combat roles, Soviet propaganda began honoring individual war heroines.
The USSR utilized propaganda celebrating heroic servicewomen to recruit more female soldiers. As a result, the state directed these stories only towards female workers that could be spared for front line service. Magazines for women in industrial jobs, such as Rabotnitsa, called upon readers to fulfill their patriotic duty and take up arms like other brave female soldiers. Since agricultural work was vital for the war effort, articles for peasant women addressed females only as partisans. Media coverage ignored the broader contribution of female soldiers and concealed the number of women in combat positions.
As the number of female soldiers increased, state media could no longer ignore their contribution to the war effort. When designated for a broader audience, propaganda emphasized the femininity of female soldiers, who were portrayed as pretty, energetic, and spirited. These women kept culture alive in the male dominated units, encouraging cleanliness among their male comrades. Propaganda represented older female soldiers as motherly figures, caring for the male soldiers, while younger women assumed a sisterly image. In this context, Soviet propaganda depicted the armed forces as a family, courageously defending the motherland against the Fascist invasion.
Despite their romantic portrayal in Soviet propaganda, female soldiers faced challenges in the male-dominated military. First, the women struggled to obtain combat roles on the front lines. The 1936 Stalin constitution asserted that Soviet women were fully emancipated, but the state still considered women unsuited for combat. As a result, when war broke out in 1941, the state rejected thousands of female volunteers eager to defend the motherland on the front lines. Even after the creation of all-female and mixed-gender combat units, some female soldiers were relegated to the rear. Women of the 1st Separate Women’s Volunteer Rifle Brigade, assigned to domestic service detail, became frustrated by their lack of combat action and requested to be sent to the front. When these requests were denied, many deserted to the front to fight for the fatherland; if caught, the deserters were severely punished.
Male-female relations in mixed-gender units posed a variety of challenges for women soldiers. Many women complained that the male-dominated military sought to defeminize servicewomen while denying them equal treatment, citing that it was one of the most difficult challenges they faced. Male officers often undermined the authority of the few female officers. When female officers failed to maintain command over their subordinates, male officers blamed female inferiority. In some cases, the tense relations between male and female soldiers escalated to sexual harassment and assault. For example, the 1st Separate Women’s Volunteer Rifle Brigade reported multiple instances of rape, resulting in sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.
Many women were unprepared for the harsh living conditions and tense gender relations they faced in combat units. Others were recruited despite the fact that they were ill, pregnant, unqualified, or unfit for military service. Some female soldiers struggled to adapt to military life, leading them to resort to extreme measures such as desertion or suicide. The Soviet military attributed these drastic actions to personal failings.
The stark contrast between the hardships of Soviet servicewomen and their portrayal in propaganda reveals the complex role of “emancipated” women in the male-dominated Soviet society. Conze and Fieseler argue that the first Bolsheviks asserted that women were equal in the USSR, but 1930s Stalinist propaganda promoted the image of women in the home, caring for their families. This ambivalent conception of women’s role in society parallels the state’s attitude towards females in the military; women’s patriotic duty did not include combat until it became absolutely necessary. Even when the efforts of female soldiers could no longer be ignored, state propaganda concealed the full extent of their participation.
Propaganda concerning female soldiers often functioned to preserve male societal dominance, portrayed them as motherly and sisterly figures, an image more consistent with women’s role in Soviet society. Furthermore, propaganda emphasized that women joined the army for patriotic reasons, such as protecting the fatherland or avenging dead relatives. These commendable motivations explained women’s ability to kill in combat, a phenomenon that contradicted established gender roles.
The Soviet state resisted the deployment of servicewomen, using propaganda to justify female combatants after they became necessary. Conze and Fieseler argue that once women soldiers were no longer needed, they stopped appearing in the media. The state prevented female soldiers from marching in the Moscow Victory Parade. The gains of servicewomen towards female emancipation were ignored after the war, and the state encouraged women to return to their duties at home.